Insider Account of Brookdale’s Covid Response Holds Lessons for Other Providers

As a public company, Brookdale’s strategy is in constant view of the rest of the industry. But while industry-watchers get to see the broad strokes, they do not always get details about how strategies were formulated or the specific ways they are executed on the ground.

That’s why CEO Cindy Baier’s new book, “Heroes Work Here,” is valuable for senior living leaders across the industry, as it provides much greater detail about the inner workings of the nation’s largest senior living provider during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“By sharing the behind-the-scenes information … we can help others learn from our experience,” Baier told me. “And at the same time, it’s helpful for leaders navigating uncharted waters to bring out the best in their teams.”


In this week’s exclusive, members-only SHN+ Update, I offer analysis and key takeaways from the book and a conversation I had this week with Baier, including:

  • How Brookdale’s “win locally” strategy translates to action at the community level
  • Baier found a creative way to recognize team members, at a time when this is key for providers throughout the industry
  • Senior living CEOs should consider how to tell their own stories, to put a human face on an industry that needs more personalization

Lessons learned from Brookdale

Baier’s book sheds light on how the senior living operator conceptualized its Covid-19 strategy early on. It also serves as an example for the rest of the senior living industry to compare and contrast their own strategies and internal processes with that of Brookdale.

For example, many senior living providers grapple with how to balance centralized leadership with local empowerment. This has been a particular sticking point for Brookdale, given the company’s vast scale. Prior to the pandemic, the company formulated a “win locally” strategy, and while Baier and the leadership team were touting this approach, specific examples of the strategy were not abundant on quarterly earnings calls. Baier’s book offers more concrete insight into what this strategy looks like on the ground.


The book details how a more than 300-resident community in Chicago, Brookdale Lake Shore Drive, came up with a plan to move in associates and fully shelter in place in March 2020; and how the company created “Hotel Brookdale” by renting out the floor of a local hotel for Covid-positive independent living residents.

Both these moves exemplify how Brookdale’s strategy played out on the ground during the initial weeks and months after the arrival of Covid-19, Baier told me.

For instance, the decision to create a shelter-in-place model sprang from a leadership meeting at Brookdale Lake Shore Drive in March 2020. The community already had surveyed associates on challenges they were facing, which included ongoing potential exposure to Covid-19 during their commutes on public transportation. At the leadership meeting, someone remarked that it would be nice if the community could “set sail” and “bubble off” from the world.

That set plans in motion to turn the community into a SHIP — a place where associates could shelter-in-place. Floors three through 37 became the SHIP, while the bottom floors of the community became “the pier,” where associates who could not shelter in place worked and created a “bridge” to the outside world for supplies and other needs.

As infection rates climbed in Chicago and around the country, the SHIP kept 500 people symptom-free during the earliest days of the virus, before routine testing allowed for greater flexibility.

Chicago was the site for another similar initiative as residents of Brookdale communities in the metro area did start to test positive. Working with community partners, including the state’s department of public health, a hotel and a fire department, local leaders executed “Hotel Brookdale,” an idea that started with Baier and the company’s corporate team. This involved a hotel floor dedicated to the housing and care of Covid-positive Brookdale residents.

“When you are going through something that’s incredibly stressful, you really learn leadership,” Baier said. “There are a lot of lessons learned that apply not just during a pandemic, not just to senior living, but broadly to business.”

Indeed, these examples highlight a few principles of local empowerment and execution that I believe are applicable across senior living providers, and perhaps in other industries as well.

Empowering local leaders should inspire them to understand and respond to the challenges that are unique to their markets — in the case of Chicago, the team surveyed their associates to learn about their challenges, which included the fact that so many were utilizing public transportation. This is not a challenge that other communities, located outside urban centers, were likely to be facing. And local empowerment also means communities can pivot and innovate quickly; in this case, the SHIP was conceived of and executed rapidly, in the midst of crisis. Finally, winning locally involves establishing and leveraging connections with other area organizations and institutions, as demonstrated by the collaboration that went into Hotel Brookdale.

And while Brookdale already had its “win locally” strategy in place, Baier said that one of the main lessons that she sees coming out of Covid-19 is that great ideas can and do flow from all parts of the organization. The culture of Brookdale Lake Shore Drive clearly enabled associates to share ideas and be heard; I’m sure that some Brookdale communities do not have that same type of culture, but the Chicago location offers a bright spot that the company can highlight and should try to emulate as much as possible across the portfolio — and the book provides one vehicle for highlighting this successful model.

Creative recognition of the workforce

The book itself also is a testament to the culture of open communication that Baier is striving to create at Brookdale. That’s because many of the book’s sections are penned not by Baier but the people most closely involved with particular initiatives or strategies.

Executive Director Erika Keegan wrote the section about the SHIP, and District Director of Clinical Service for Chicago Robyn Moore penned the section about Hotel Brookdale. Other essays include Senior VP of Sales Rick Wigginton’s description of building a Covid-ready sales operation, Marjan Kodric’s explanation of overhauling the company’s culinary program in the face of new dining restrictions, and former Vice President of Communications Julie Davis on managing a “small but mighty” comms department in the pandemic’s early days.

“I don’t think anyone could understand the complexity of the issues that were faced, and the effort that was involved in overcoming the challenges in front of us,” Baier said. “And I wanted to celebrate all of the people at all levels of Brookdale who made success possible.”

No doubt, the book casts Brookdale in a very positive light, but senior living leaders should think twice before rolling their eyes at this aspect of “Heroes Work Here.” They should consider what they have done to recognize and celebrate their own teams for the work they have been doing, particularly as the industry faces a workforce crisis.

Many leaders pay lip-service to getting creative about recognition, and Baier’s book is an example of one route toward that goal.

All net proceeds from the sale of the book are going toward the company’s Associate Compassion Fund program, which provides financial assistance for employees who have fallen on hard times, such as suffering a fire or illness.

Chronicling industry history

Writing the book was time-consuming — Baier said she “​​didn’t sleep very much” during the roughly seven months it took her. While I’m sure not every CEO has the bandwidth, I candidly wish more senior living leaders took the time to write down or share their experiences of hardship and victory from the pandemic.

Every morning as I hunt for news, I am struck by the fact that there is already a de facto historical record of the pandemic’s early days in the form of every local news story accessible via Google. It is no secret that many of these stories painted some in the senior living industry in a less-than-flattering light, whether deserved or not.

I often speak with senior living leaders who share enthusiastic stories from the pandemic, and many of these stories end up published on Senior Housing News. But there are countless other stories left on the cutting-room floor, or left to echo through the halls at an industry conference. And I think they are worth documenting now so that the next generation of senior living leaders can learn from the current class of executives’ experiences before many of them move on.

Many senior living leaders have called on the industry to do a better job of telling stories in part to counteract all that negative press and consumer confusion. Baier’s book is a step in that direction.

What makes Baier tick

The book also sheds light on Baier’s leadership style and challenges that she personally faced in the last two years.

In the book, Baier and many of the company’s other leaders detail how they have mitigated the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. For Brookdale, the ordeal started with a warning from mentor and former Brookdale board member Jim Seward in mid-January, 2020.

Baier recalled she started her day at about 3 a.m. — which she said was not unusual before the pandemic — and didn’t sense anything was amiss. Then, Seward told her something that caused a pit to form in her stomach: a new and deadly disease was spreading rapidly in China.

Baier told me it was “the single most-important conversation” in the company’s pandemic response.

“Jim’s research, his relationship with me and his early warning literally saved lives,” Baier added during our conversation.

In the book’s introduction, Baier also details her upbringing on a farm in central Illinois. She notes that she “grew up among corn and soybean fields, with endless rows of glorious green stalks that disappeared into the horizon.”

Later on, she shares the story of how her mom suffered a car accident, and the aftermath which she writes effectively ended her time as a child and thrust her into the world of work. Ultimately, those events “created the person that I am,” Baier said.

She also writes about how she managed a personal crisis during the pandemic: her sister Lisa’s terminal diagnosis from end-stage liver disease. In the book, Baier writes how a breakfast meeting with Dr. Wright Pinson, who started Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s (VUMC’s) liver transplant program, essentially saved her sister’s life by starting a chain of events that ended with a life-saving transplant.

These are anecdotes you don’t usually get from senior living CEOs, even those who are leading public companies. I get why they might be reluctant to share, and Baier herself said it was hard to include that much personal information in the book. Even so, I think more senior living executives should follow Baier’s example and share personal anecdotes.

To be clear, there are some who have authored books containing personal anecdotes. For example, Aegis Living CEO Dwayne Clark in 2019 penned “30 Summers More,” which chronicled his own personal struggles with aging and his quest to discover the keys to longevity.

As it stands today, these stories are few and far between. But I think they could help the industry put on a more human face at a time when it is struggling to define itself to members of the general public.

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